COLUMN: Improve Guest Worker Program to Meet Agriculture Workforce Needs

July 24, 2017
Weekly Column and Op-Ed

If you have ever taken a job on a farm during harvest, you know it is hard work at mercy of the elements. Much of the work is done by hand, particularly growing and harvesting cherries and apples, which are major crops in Washington State. As a farmer myself, I have worked in fields and orchards in the Lower Yakima Valley since I was a kid, harvesting asparagus, hops, grapes, tree fruit, and more. Across our state, particularly on the east side, agriculture is the mainstay industry for many regional economies. According to a recent report, the total value of Washington agricultural products sold is estimated at more than nine billion dollars. We can be proud that we grow the finest agriculture produce anywhere and compete for customers in the global market.

One of the biggest challenges for our agriculture economy is meeting labor needs. In Yakima, our state’s leading agricultural county, farm work employs between 30,000 and 50,000 people. With record employment levels this year in many counties in our state, agriculture is facing a shortage of workers, despite paying hourly rates that are highly competitive. This labor shortage can result in ripened produce going to waste in the fields instead of being harvested and sold. The shortage creates a headache for agriculture and lost income for our regional economy. One Benton City grower lost a third of his tree fruit crop, 10 of 30 acres of Gala apples, because they could not be picked in time. In short, productivity losses due to the labor shortage are not sustainable for farming communities, and they can be prevented with workable solutions.

An important federal initiative designed to help ease this labor shortage is the H2A visa program. After first giving the opportunity to Americans to fill Ag jobs, H2A visas allow foreign guest workers to enter the U.S. legally on a temporary basis for farm work before returning home. In recent years, participation in the H2A program has grown along with the critical labor shortage affecting Ag. However, the fact is the H2A program is not working for all of agriculture. In the case of dairy work, milking cows is a year-round Ag job. H2A falls short because it does not apply adequately to the range of positions available in agriculture. I also have heard many farmers’ personal experiences of the difficulty they have complying with the red tape, redundant bureaucracy, and needless delays of the H-2A program.

I was glad that the House Appropriation Committee adopted an amendment I recently offered to help fix the broken H2A program so that it works better to fill unmet agricultural labor needs. My amendment clarifies that all of agriculture may use H2A. Even with my amendment, H2A would still be a temporary program. It would not change the time limits a worker employed through the H2A program can stay in the U.S., and it would not change the requirements on farmers to show they are first hiring domestic workers.

My amendment is a small starting point of relief that we can provide for farmers who need access to workers, simply by making clear that all agriculture may utilize H2A.